Why I don’t write about apparel manufacturing overseas

I got this email from one of our loyal visitors who we’ll call Sam. I’ve reprinted it here along with my response.

Anytime I support offshore production on your forum I get my head shot off. Contractors in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Basin are very welcoming to small manufacturers because their large contracts went to Asia. Your DE following is missing a very important trend. The number of resources in these countries today are like it was in the US 15 years ago.

Like you I was a very vocal supporter of production in the US. But with the elimination of the MFA I knew I had to restructure to stay in business. It’s been three painful years and I feel we just have turned the corner with our offshore transition. If I was a start-up today, I’d rather have three painful years and end up with an offshore relationship, than go through three painful years and end up with a domestic relationship only to go through three more difficult years to do an offshore transition.

I think contracting in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Basin pushes you (Kathleen) outside of your comfort zone. Our pattern and marker making is still done at our offices and we email a win plot file directly to the factory and the marker is plotted there. It’s even faster than when we would plot the markers here and UPS them to a contractor in the US. If I need my feet on the ground I can get a flight out of the east coast and be there in five hours. Cost of one week stay and airfare is less than $1000 compared to the savings for every container that comes in – $60,000.

Before I start, a bit about Sam as it has bearing on my comments. Sam -as an engineer in an unrelated field- is better acquainted than most about the process and constraints of manufacturing. He’s internalized concepts of production intuitively that others must learn by rote. As such, his tool kit is much more sophisticated than the average designer. While it may be untrue, a part of me suspects that he (perhaps) minimizes the benefits of having gone through the rigors of learning product development domestically. Similarly, the economies of scale afforded by the sales base he started before he moved offshore, is what created the potential of starting his own factory abroad. While I do not doubt that if he knew then, all that he knows now and would have started overseas at the outset, this isn’t tangible for most of the entrepreneurs I know. Our frames of reference diverge. Most of his associates are like him, his viewpoints are reinforced by them. Being no less guilty, I have my own echo chamber. Few of those with whom I associate have the skill sets he does. There are four basic reasons I rarely discuss offshore production. These are:

  1. I don’t know much about it.

  2. It conflicts with my mission
  3. I don’t feel it’s in my readers primary interest.
  4. Trends are changing.

I don’t know much about it
It is difficult to get up here and pontificate day after day. Difficult for reasons beyond the obvious. As one becomes an authority, one’s boundaries are stretched. One must learn and progress along with readers. However, a greater difficulty is the temptation of transcending one’s competence. It is flattering to have readers ask questions, supposing one knows the answers to questions one does not. Many “authorities” step nimbly into the abyss, numbly blathering on topics of which they know little. I can’t do this, no matter how flattering other’s impressions of my competence. While I do have some experience in working with enterprises abroad -mostly in the Americas- it’s not my area of strength. I prefer to refer people to others who know what they’re doing. If I cannot imagine myself having to navigate the vagaries of offshore production, I am even less qualified to explain it to others. I think it’s more commendable when one refrains from speaking of which one knows little rather than faking it to be everyone’s solution and expert.

It conflicts with my mission
I think that through time (pontificating day after day) the purpose of my core values and mission have become diluted. My mission is not the effect of manufacturing but the potentiality of it by teaching the core concepts of apparel manufacturing to entrepreneurs. It is a much broader concept than regional applications. Regardless of where one decides to manufacture be it the Carribean Basin, China or the US and Canada, one needs to know the core concepts.

Additionally, although I could never be described as a jingoist US citizen, there is a partisanship in what I do; I’ve never denied it. Through transmission of my values (truly Sam, as you say, characterized by my omissions), I am free to disseminate my bias just as others are free to ignore it. I am a capitalist, not a democracy -why do people confuse the two? I’ve never denied having a social agenda. I’ve been an activist for many many years, I’m a political animal. Thirteen years ago, I decided to consolidate my efforts. Others were more effective at advocating social change, fighting for clean water, better health care and better housing. I decided I could have the greatest effect on my community by local economic development in my milieu through job creation. Not everybody can go to college and few can support their families -and their neighbor’s families- at McDonalds or clerking at Wal-Mart. Sure, I could have started my own factory and employed people but I realized I’d have much greater effect if I taught a whole bunch of people about how to start a factory. So that’s what I do. At this point, I’m curious. How many jobs have I created?

Even most of my designers are misguided. They think this is about them. It’s not. It’s for the people I rarely meet and never talk to, those that I will enable DEs to hire. This is about restoring dignity, integrity and self-respect to unemployed people with few options. I too was a welfare mother. Somebody gave me a chance. With that, I paid taxpayers back for those AFDC checks and food stamps long ago but I’m still paying my mentor back. I can’t change the world but I choose to effect change in my small corner of it.

I don’t feel it’s in my readers primary interest
Again, owing to the echo chamber of the association of my readers, I judge their needs to be one of learning the basic concepts of manufacturing and production. It doesn’t matter where they produce. Whether they produce in China or Mexico (the latter is definitely a better bet in my opinion), they still need to weather the rigors of learning product development. While it’s definitely more costly to do that at arms length, I think it’s easier and faster. You pay a premium for time. Once they’ve developed the acumen, perhaps then they can move abroad.

For the record, I don’t think that all people who offshore are bad people, not at all. The offshore operations I have worked with were run by profoundly caring individuals with strongly developed morals and humanitarian goals. They enriched the lives of their employees; they were humbling. I know one DE who fed her employees (and their kids at the on site day care) breakfast, lunch and dinner. A former nurse, she ran a clinic at her factory. Being a nurse from America -she ruefully admitted- was a problem at times. Her pregnant stitchers would come to work, even in labor. At that time, she delivered five babies (in three years) in her own bed.

Sitting in my echo chamber as I do, of course it’s more likely I’d hear of experiences that validate my biases -which is why you’re useful to me Sam! Last week when I interviewed Amelia, I asked her why, if she’d been manufacturing in China, she’d go through the hassle of bringing it all back. What she said was telling. She said that doing it in China made it “too easy”. There were other reasons too, such as being able to exact a higher level of quality control and being able to visit facilities easier. Minimums were a problem, she didn’t have the sales base to make it cost effective yet. She said she had a manufacturing liaison and that made it really easy but that “it was a cop out, we weren’t learning the process of patterns, the cutting, the nuts and bolts of what makes a business work”. Amelia, like many others, are fascinated by it and seek another level in the involvement of their own process. Many manufacturers are returning to domestic production.

Trends are changing
Books are written on this so I’ll just try to hit the high points.

  • Provenance: Consumers are increasingly less willing to pony up for the high price of premium goods made overseas if they have a similar option of equally priced goods from a domestic producer.

  • Lean manufacturing: Advances in industrial engineering have reduced the costs and time lines of domestic manufacturing.
  • No China policies: There’s an increasing number of retailers and sales reps who don’t want to take on pioneer lines who do it offshore.
  • Sustainability: With the increasing cost of fuel, manufacturing overseas isn’t as low cost as it once was.
  • Fast response: Retailers want to order closer to season; demand for immediates will escalate, not decrease. As I continually say to domestic producers, your only advantage is four weeks on the water, make it work.
  • Saturation: Consumers are sick of commodities. They’re looking for limited and unique niche products that reflect their values and lifestyles.

In sum, I don’t think people who offshore are bad. We have different motivations and goals -to say nothing of skills and experience. If people want to do that, they need to hire someone who is capable. I’m not. I am not equipped to advise people on resolving offshore disputes, infrastructure, quality control problems, long lead times, high minimums, locating facilities, weathering communication difficulties, consulting on import procedures or getting goods released from customs. Instilling self reliance and imparting the core concepts of manufacturing is all I can manage. Thankfully, that’ll work anywhere.

And for what it’s worth, if you’re going to produce outside of the US or Canada, I agree with Sam that the Americas are your best bet. Mexico et al have been hammered by outsourcing to Asia -and it’s close, over land. Heck, I’m available if you need a fluent Spanish speaker to troubleshoot existing production related problems -but I can’t help you set up there.

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22 comments

  1. Sam says:

    This week I hosted a Fashion Incubator DE from the Seattle area at my facility on the east coast. And last week I offered the assistance of my design team to help another Fashion Incubator DE at the Material World show in Miami.

    These two interactions with emerging entrepreneurs made me aware of the knowledge I acquired in my start-up years by producing in the USA. I developed my “tool kit” and only then was I confident enough to venture offshore. I finally saw how overwhelming the process was for new DEs in the start-up phase.

    Kathleen was very intuitive when she said:

    “a part of me suspects that he minimizes the benefits of having gone through the rigors of learning product development domestically.”

    These past weeks I realized how much I minimized the lessons I learned 15 years ago.

    I participate in the forums and add an occasional comment to Kathleen’s blog only to offer another perspective. Most successful DEs will sooner or later need to venture offshore, it’s an easy step to take, but an extremely difficult step to master.

    This was a very courageous post and I commend Kathleen for her tack and honesty.

    Your Friend,
    Sam

  2. /anne... says:

    How many of us these days are brave enough to say that we don’t know something?

    So many of us say ‘yes’ – then try and bluff our way through, because we’re afraid of seeming stupid, or losing our jobs.

    I think we can all learn from this, no matter what industry we are in.

  3. Kevin says:

    As an American living in Asia, you do in fact come off as jingoist to me, especially in your attitude toward China, the politically acceptable target of progressive Americans’ xenophobia these days.

  4. Johnny says:

    I think the view of production overseas is a bit too simplified. Volumes of studies show that the purchase power of the ordinary American and European citizen would be dramatically reduced if all goods should be produced locally.

    At the same time outsourcing is creating good jobs in areas in parts of the world where they are really needed.

    I don’t want to hide that I have a vested interest in this topic since production in China is a part of my job. On the other hand, I am proud to say that I can see with my very own eyes that the factories producing for American and European customers often lead the way in terms of providing workers with much improved working conditions.

    You could say that the American and European companies that order their garments from poor regions of the world at the same time give thousands of people a better life, and provide parents with a chance to give their kids an education.

    So you could argue that if you really want to significantly improve the lives of a lot of people then production overseas is the way to go.

  5. Annie says:

    I am first and foremost a business person with an awareness of the necessities of cost containment. I am also in the initial stages of starting a line. However, with an eye to the long view, I must ask, when all but the lowest paying jobs go overseas who will be buying any merchandise?

  6. Kathleen says:

    you do in fact come off as jingoist to me, especially in your attitude toward China,

    ~chuckles~ …Jingoist?… ~chuckling~
    Okay! –tapping lecturn– time for vocabulary review:

    Jingoist: Extreme nationalism characterized especially by a belligerent foreign policy; chauvinistic patriotism.

    Considering all the criticisms I’ve done, the least of which has been of China; it’s just not a blogging priority and I don’t see the value in it. Not to say that China’s not great and all that but like anyone I have a bone to pick with, she’s going to have to get in line and wait her turn like everybody else :).

  7. The thought of producing offshore is overwhelming to startups, and I’m not an inexperienced traveler. I speak Spanish and I’ve lived overseas. But, how to navigate all the ins and outs of overseas production?…I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it. I remember what it took to navigate the bureaucracy for my papers in to live in Nicaragua and I spoke the language.

    Having said that, I have the opportunity to travel to Bali where my fabric is made. My fabric supplier works with a small factory there and has invited me to go with her to design fabric this fall. The factory also has a sewing component…so that will be my first step. The woman I’m going with knows the ins and outs of importing, so that will help. I plan to pick her brain.

    My point is: it takes small steps and patience. And experience with production which I’m getting here. I’m still content to manufacture in my studio with some help, but I’m going to take this opportunity to at least look at other options.

    People like Sam (who have now seen both sides) can be of invaluable help on this blog. Thanks for initiating this post.

    Marguerite

  8. Lesley says:

    Being an idealist (I agree with your agenda wholeheartedly) I entered the business with the goal of bringing work back into my state (NC) only to find most all sewing contracting jobs are already gone. I’ve been employing laid-off workers with commercial sewing equipment, one of which has dreams of starting her own factory. She lacks the overall knowledge of running a factory (I guess you could say her experience is limited to her job areas) and I too lack this knowledge but would love to be able to help her grow with me rather than have to pull the work as my business grows (no immediate risk here thanks to our stinky economy.) The challenge is compounded by the fact that she is not a native English speaker (although her English is acceptable I wonder if this will be a hindrance for her.) She also has 3 children so money and time is an issue. Do you have any suggestions on where she could turn to get the technical know-how on actually setting up a factory? She is a hard worker and has been patient of my learning curve, responsible and reliable and I feel I should help her as she has helped me.

  9. Ellen says:

    There are benefits to both working off shore as well as domestically. Before deciding where to place production you need to consider:
    1) needle skills of the factory
    2) language issues and work ethic
    3) sewing equipment needed vs factory capabilites
    4) minimums
    5) fabric and trim availability
    6) based on #5 will your garment be dutiable or not
    7) quality control
    8) level of product development
    9) time
    10) cost

    All these issues need to be answered before you decide whether you should go off shore or produce domestically.

  10. First, for Lesley. Have your friend contact the Industrial Extension Service at North Carolina State University (http://www.ies.ncsu.edu/aboutus/mep.cfm).

    You should be able to find a case study of lean manufacturing improvements they made at a sewing factory that employed blind and partially sighted people

    More importantly, their mission is the development of manufacturing in North Carolina. They make money from consulting and training, but would also be good sources for the person who doesn’t have a big budget for either of those things.

    Second – an overlooked benefit of having a factory, large or small, in a community is that money comes into the community. The company’s income comes from all over the country or globe to pay the employees. If the owner is local, there’s even more benefit. And for every job in the company, there are a lot of other services that profit – more than you need to operate a fast food operation.

    Wages received at Wal Mart help the community a little, but all the rest of the money you spend there goes somewhere else. Don’t be fooled by a company’s donations to help the community. It’s your money.

    So Kathleen is right. Manufacturing helps economic development, even more than she might realize.

  11. Lisa Bloodgood in Portland says:

    Argh! I have 2 opinions or sides on this. I’m all for helping disadvantaged countries get out of the miry pit of poverty but we also need to help our own people, too! I would like to manufacture domestically, but it seems that not all the fabric I would use is domestically produced. This could be wherein the balance lies. ?

  12. Eric H says:

    The other part of the answer is that the market for teaching people to offshore their manufacturing is already saturated. From what I can tell, every single business school offering an MBA is all about the new manufacturing paradigm: get a good logo and make it in China.

    And … Kathleen is a jingoist! Oh yes, we’re going to get some mileage out of this.

  13. Rocio says:

    I have managed production for imports and domestic accounts, but can honestly say that without the domestic background I wouldn’t have been able to “make it happen” for every single one of my import accounts….

  14. Jason says:

    My interest lies in off-shore production and using our people to created and drive new markets.

    As for the vialbility of domestic manufacturing of apparel, its DEAD…gone and buried. That being said, there will be a viable domestic market for niche and unique garments that will service a TINY part of the US market. For those who think it will come back in force and Target and Wal-Mart will be buying domestically…sorry… The reason is that you, I and my neighbors demand low prices and thats where there dollars go. The Average working Joe in the US forced the off-shore movement because they could and would not pay $8.00 for a plain white t-shirt at retail. So when debating this, take a look in the closet of your most mainstream and normal friend and find its all made off-shore. Many of you reading this may be in a clique or sub-culture of domestic production, but I mean really look outside your group…thats America and thats why the jobs are overseas.

  15. Barbara says:

    Jason, it’s a matter of priorities. Sewing overseas making tees etc, you spend more money on brand marketing, image and the 40% off hang tags already on the garment when it ships. If you do it here, you spend on making a better more specialized product, less marketing, less product but a lot higher margins. I know plenty who are profitable in the USA. What’s that old saying? People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.

    Not everybody wants to take over the world or be the biggest. Some of us like making a living making nice things. My sales are increasing every year, last year was up almost 30%. My biggest problem is production because more people are trying to bring back their production. I will have to start my own sewing unit here by next year. That is my focus now. But I will keep your advice in mind if I want to sell tee shirts and polos.

  16. Shelagh says:

    I too am tackling the issue of domestic manufacturing at the moment. If anyone has leads for manufacturing in Florida, I would greatly appreciate your suggestions.

    Incidentally, I spent many years in the corporate world in the U.S. and Europe, and am well aware of the varying social classes. I know that everyone cannot afford domestically made goods. A rapidly growing segment of the U.S. population are committed to buying ‘locally’ and will pay more for goods that bear the ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ label.

    The Italians have done a stellar job of protecting this segment of their country’s economy. It is a pity that the Americans lost sight of this for so long.

    Without vocal, well-spoken advocates who are willing to risk being publicly ridiculed, the lower-income, less-educated population of the U.S. doesn’t stand a chance. Although I do not currently practice law, I find value in my outrageous law school loans by helping victims of workplace discrimination on a pro-bono basis. My approach to growing my small business with domestic production supports this belief system.

    As for domestic manufacturing being ‘DEAD’ I love to point to a little company called American Apparel. They proved a lot of people wrong.

  17. David Himel says:

    I don’t feel it is fair to characterize someone as a Jingoist because they raise concerns about offshore production. It has become clear that there is often a relationship between profits and less then environmental or ethical production methods. Before workers safety and trade unions in the early 19th century, sewing facilities in Toronto, New York and the rest of North America were both profitable and highly exploitative. To criticize production overseas (especially given the food and toy scandals of late) is merely responsible consumerism. Anyone who would criticize that is probably afraid of the gravy train coming to an end. I would promote well made, well designed and fairly traded clothing from any country, including my own or anyone elses. Everyone deserves a decent planet to live on and in!

  18. David Himel says:

    Another side note. American Apparel started in Montreal as a rebranding project. There has been much controversy around how they produce their “apparel”. Mainly, where they make their items and what constitutes a fair wage. Their man rebranding strategy involved reproducing vintage style tees at a time when the t-shirt industry was producing a looser, less fitted drop shoulder t-shirt. They quickly caught the repro market and captured the blanks market for printers catering to a younger fitter crowd looking for a retro style tshirt. Inovation (the passing to the younger son of the company) resulted in good design.

  19. Barbara says:

    I stumbled upon this discussion by accident but here is my view as an average consumer. I have many different roles in life.As a worker I have been downsized at least 4 times since 2001 twice the company moved its operations overseas. Now when I purchased apparel or anything nonessential I look at the following 1) Do I like it 2) How is it constructed and 3)Where was it constructed . If the garment was not constructed in the USA it has to be on the Reduced rack NOT the sale rack and at least 85% off. But if the item was made in the USA I will purchase the item at full price. I know this sounds crazy but I feel it is my small way to let business know lets start bringing jobs back home.

  20. Trisha Stevens says:

    Hello,

    I am looking for US clothing manufacters. I have a few designs that I would like made. Is there any here in the US that does small production for new comers? Any advice is greatly welcomed. I am very new so please advice away!
    Trisha

  21. Rocio says:

    I find it curious to see how prophetic Kathleen’s advice seems just barely a year after this was posted…

    As the economy struggles to recover, a lot of manufacturers who made the “Mad rush to China” are now trying to make the quick comeback to domestics because they can’t meet the minimum orders that were the norm less than a year ago…

    The difference is that a lot of them are finding it difficult to bring the production back because they are returning to a domestic market where it’s more difficult to recruit an experienced Production team (pattern making, grading, samples, production management, QC) because anyone who could leave the industry when the jobs left to China did.

    We have seen a increase in the amount of work returning from China over the last few months, and from our perspective this has been the silver lining of the recession for domestic manufacturers.

  22. Eric H says:

    This article is (today) almost exactly 8 years old. Since then, Chris Anderson wrote about the “maker revolution” in an article in 2010 and a book in 2012. A dozen copycat books came along, too. A few things have changed since this post was written: fuel costs are down, but Chinese wages are up. Manufacturing employment is increasing for the first time in a generation (Federal Reserve Economic Data, 2010-2015). Suddenly, domestic production is a thing. Welcome to the party!

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